The Puerility of “Purity”: How Franzen’s Latest Novel Rewrites an Edith Wharton Novel You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

RELAX: this is not another review of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. Rather, it is my object here to sketch the terms of the relationship between Franzen’s novel and another, earlier work that, for all intents and purposes, might be Purity’s cousin, if not quite its twin sister. Edith Wharton’s The Children, published in 1928, has a lot in common with Purity — which is particularly interesting in relation to his much discussed and derided essay about Wharton and her fiction a few years ago.

[In the first published version of this essay, I had written, as the last phrase of that sentence, “has a lot in common with Purity — too much, in fact, given Franzen’s well-documented dislike for its author.” Mr. Franzen objected to that formulation, noting that he had been “a strong champion of Wharton’s fiction both in print and in [his] public statements,” and “nowhere said or implied that [he didn’t] like her.” He asked for a correction and explanation to be added. My sentence was, he is right, not as precise as it should have been, and I apologize for giving, at least in part, a wrong impression. By “well-documented” I was referring to the firestorm of discussion around his essay, not meaning to suggest that he had repeatedly expressed his feelings about her. And “dislike” wasn’t entirely accurate, either. As this essay goes on to argue, he does turn his unflattering comments about her person into praise for aspects of her work. But I also argue below that he never recoups his charge that she was “aware of what an unlikable figure she herself cut” and claims this unlikability is why she “placed unlikable women in the foreground” of her fiction; hence my use of “dislike,” which, given the use of an author’s name as a synecdoche for her work, was unintentionally misleading, suggesting he didn’t like her work. Nonetheless, I’m afraid I disagree that his now-infamous essay on Wharton represents a strong championing of her work; that difference of opinion, too, is registered below.]

Three years before Purity came along, Franzen ruffled many a feather by arguing that Wharton’s only “potentially redeeming disadvantage” was that she “wasn’t pretty.” It was a sentiment that jibed well with other similarly tasteless tributes marking Wharton’s 150th birthday, including a Vogue photographic spread that cast writer-types like Jeffrey Eugenides and Junot Díaz as Wharton’s literary associates while Wharton herself was portrayed by a Russian supermodel. But if Franzen’s coarse assessment of Wharton’s person back in 2012 outed him as an unscrupulous reader, it nevertheless established his familiarity with her work. Indeed, it makes sense to see Franzen as among the most recent in a long line of Wharton’s literary heirs, especially in light of his own unwillingness to see himself in this way. While Franzen acknowledges Wharton’s role as materfamilias to a tradition that includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Jay McInerney, and Jane Smiley, he stops just short of connecting his own name with hers, and we ought to be asking why. After all, The Children, which was a bestseller in 1928 but is little-read today, exploits the same “nexus of money and media and celebrity” that Franzen admiringly identifies in Wharton’s other novels. And this would seem to make it prime material for a Frazenian reboot, except that Purity rewrites Wharton in the way that history, to paraphrase Marx, rewrites itself — which is to say, as farce.

Like Purity, Wharton’s The Children triangulates a relationship between a young girl, a mother or mother-like figure, and a grown man who, though his age aligns him with the latter, succumbs to a puerile lust for the former. But unlike Purity, The Children presents this setup but once, while Franzen opts to sit back and watch the spectacle of near-pedophilia unfold again and again and again. The compulsion to repeat is, in fact, a central theme in Purity. Andreas Wolf, whose insouciance and youthful European looks cause the “girls [to] line[] up outside his office door to drop their pants for him,” is, in spite of this fact, a chronic masturbator, both literally and figuratively. After he meets the fifteen- or sixteen-year-old Annagret, commits murder in her name, and settles into victorious cohabitation with her, Andreas becomes “even more of a compulsive masturbator […] than he’d been as a teenager.” The internet (and the omnipresence of free porn) is ostensibly to blame for this condition, but so is an entrenched narcissism that drives not only Andreas but also all of the male characters in Purity. “Repetition was objectively boring but he couldn’t stop it,” Franzen writes. Indeed: repetition is objectively boring, and it’s Franzen’s modus operandi — nay, his recurrent formula — in this novel. Franzen’s instant-replay antics serve to remind us of just how unspectacular spectacle can be.

By contrast, Wharton’s The Children, which Wharton conceived as a narrative commentary on the rampant solipsism of “modern” culture in the 1920s, triangulates the young female / mature female / mature male dynamic for the sake of critique, not spectacle. At the heart of The Children are, more or less, three people: Judith Wheater (who is the same age as Franzen’s Annagret), Martin Boyne (46, and Judith’s mother’s paramour from an earlier age), and Rose Sellars. We never learn Rose’s exact age, though her romantic history with Boyne puts her somewhere in range of his demographic. But Wharton’s hesitance to peg Rose in this way is a device — a device engineered to reveal Boyne’s narcissism, and to force us, as readers, to see women in this novel through the lens of that narcissism. “[T]he question of a woman’s age was almost always beside the point. When a man loved a woman she was always the age he wanted her to be; when he had ceased to, she was either too old for witchery or too young for technique,” Wharton explains. In this, and in other ways in The Children, Wharton strategically sacrifices her female characters to expose the machinations of male self-absorption.

Franzen, on the other hand, isn’t interested in giving us lessons in exposure, except where young female bodies are concerned. When 24-year-old Pip (whose real name, Purity, styles her as Franzen’s protagonist) strips naked for Andreas, he tells her she’s beautiful. “I think you mean I’m young,” she returns. Franzen (who, like the fictional Andreas, is born in 1959) draws a straight line between youth and beauty, but also between exposure and repulsion. Pip and Annagret, along with the nameless horde of “teen pussy” that Andreas relentlessly pursues, are faulted by men like Andreas for committing acts of “self-exposure” that make them easy prey for men like Andreas. And we’re not simply talking about literal exposure, though Pip strips for Andreas willingly enough and Annagret kisses him first. Even Annabel, Pip’s mother, is chastised by Tom for “her capacity to be hurt” by him and for “exposing herself to the shame” of his refusal of her.

In Wharton’s The Children, though, it is men who commit heinous and unforgivable acts of self-exposure. Boyne doth protest too much when he tells Rose Sellars, “I never could stand your elderly men who look at little girls,” referring to Mr. Dobree, his rival for both young Judith Wheater’s attention and Rose Sellars’s matrimonial hand. In criticizing his rival, though, Boyne effectively “outs” himself, advertising his own lust for Judith. Rose, after telling him that she hadn’t noticed Dobree behaving inappropriately toward Judith, suddenly sees the truth of Boyne’s attachment to the girl and calls him out on it. “I believe I’ve always known it,” she tells him, and though Boyne is aware of feeling “self-conscious and clumsy” in the interim, our readerly sympathies are inarguably directed toward Rose, who has, in this scene, stumbled upon a realization that bests her capacity for denial: namely, that her fiancé prefers a 15-year-old child to her.

Wharton poses a tacit and crucial question to her readers in The Children: Why do adult men want in this way? And, in answering this question, she refuses to place blame on the female characters who either compel that want or suffer unfairly, like Rose, as the casualties of it. Whereas Franzen, in his novel, grants Annagret and Pip an air of agency that leaves them just short of asking for it, Wharton denies Judith any sense of plausible agency, and for two important reasons: one, because Wharton wants us to remember that she really is just a child; two, because, in making us see Judith through Boyne’s eyes, Wharton wants us as readers to theorize an answer to that aforementioned question. For Judith does not exist in The Children except when rendered through the eyes of men like Boyne. Wharton describes her through these eyes as: “an imponderable and elusive creature,” “a young Daphne, half emerging into reality, half caught in the foliage of fairyland,” “a strange little creature who changes every hour, hardly seems to have any personality of her own.” “As for her very self,” Boyne thinks, “you grope for her identity and find an instrument the wind plays on, a looking-glass that reflects the clouds, a queer little sensitive plate, very little and very sensitive.”

In refusing to make Judith fully real — that is, fully existent outside of the “groping” (I think I speak for Wharton when I say, pun entirely intended) male gaze — Wharton is forcing us to wrestle not with the question of Judith’s existence, but with Boyne’s. Why do adult men want in this way? Wharton asks. For whatever explains Boyne’s desire, it is certainly not female complicity (even the kind of vague, in-spite-of-itself complicity that Franzen describes when Pip admits that she is unsure “that she liked that she liked” her sexual interactions with Andreas).

Wharton, then, encourages us to question the roots of male desire without blaming the objects of it. In Purity, though, Franzen does the opposite. Where Wharton presents the Judith-Boyne-Rose triangle for our critical inspection, Franzen gives us the Annagret-Horst-Annagret’s mother triangle, which becomes the Annagret-Andreas-Annagret’s mother triangle, which gives way to the Pip-Tom-Leila triangle, which refers back to the Leila-Charles-Charles’s wife triangle, which is followed by the Pip-Andreas-[insert third party] triangle. Franzen gestures toward incest when he supplies an aging Hollywood actress for the third party / “mother-like figure” in this triangle, a woman who is playing — believe it or not — Andreas’s mother in a biopic based on his life. In each of these iterations, Franzen asks us to question the motives of the young female players. Sometimes this is accomplished through interior monologue: Pip is confused by her feelings for the much-older Andreas, and probes the origins of her own “daddy issues.” Annagret is crippled by desire for Andreas, remaining loyal to him even after he leaves her. And Leila uses her résumé as an accomplished home-wrecker to level with her interview subjects in the service of her career-making journalistic exposés.

Franzen’s sympathies clearly lie with aberrant male desire, not with the desired. Even Tom, who is perhaps the most sympathetic male character in the novel, has the last name of Aberant, which Annabel mispronounces “Aberrant.” What’s more, Franzen creates a hierarchy of sympathy in Purity that ranks candidly lustful older men above naive, sexually exploited young women. And it’s hard not to see such a move as intentional when we recall that Franzen previously took Wharton to task (in The New Yorker, and then once again alongside the Penguin anniversary edition of Wharton’s popular “Old New York” novels) on the very subject of sympathy. Franzen’s complaint against Wharton rests on the observation that ugliness — in this case, Wharton’s ugliness — is an obstacle to sympathy. Franzen claims that Wharton is unsympathetic toward female characters in her fiction because she wants to “punish[] […] the pretty girl she couldn’t be.” The unrepentant misogyny of such a comment, I think, ought to have prepared us all for a novel like Purity.

For though Franzen would no doubt bristle at the connection I’m making here between his novel and Wharton’s, Purity is, in many ways, a rewrite of The Children, albeit a strikingly less sympathetic one. The themes, certainly, are the same: children who are forced to act like parents because their parents act like children, complicated domestic setups that are both the products and the indexes of “modernity,” squabbles about inheritances, older dudes creeping on 15-year-old girls, and the like. Franzen’s Leila, for instance, inwardly reflects that “Pip wasn’t actually innocent at all — that, to the contrary, she was wiser than Leila, that she and her peers were well aware of what a terminally fucked-up world they were inheriting.” In this scene, as in others, she is the spitting image of Wharton’s Joyce, who rejects the possibility of her daughter Judith’s innocence, explaining, “[y]ou don’t have to tell the modern child things! They seem to be born knowing them. […] Why, Judy’s like a mother to me.” Children are refused the experience of childhood in The Children because modernity deems it so. The result of this denial, though, is a paradoxical situation in which no one is ever able to grow up. “Judith’s never been a child. There was no time,” is the explanation Boyne receives to this end. And it’s true, Judith is too busy overseeing the trailing brood of children — six in all — who are the products of her own parents’ many marriages and remarriages, to have any “time” to be the child of Boyne’s fantasies. She shepherds this crew about Europe in order to save them, her half- / step- brothers and sisters, from their parents’ incompetence, though her age makes her a poor candidate for the supervision of anyone, including herself.

We see this same situation repeated in Purity, where Pip, a child still in her mid-20s (who seems to burst into a childish torrent of tears on every other page), is forced to assume a variety of caretaker roles that she is too immature to handle. Pip cares for her mother (who is not mature enough, even, to have a driver’s license), protecting her from emotional harm, and also for her fellow roommates in San Francisco. Pip, though she is unable to sustain either a job or a functioning romantic relationship, takes care of Dreyfuss, “the schizophrenic roommate,” and Ramón, “the disabled roommate,” before Franzen shoves these names and persons to the furthermost periphery of Purity. But what unites Wharton’s Judith and Franzen’s Pip most of all might be their joint propensity for tragic recapitulation.

Both Judith and Pip, at the end of these novels, appear poised to recommit the crimes that have been done to them — by their parents, by society, and especially by men. In the final scene of Wharton’s The Children, Boyne gazes at young Judith with voyeuristic abandon, from an unseen position. As he does so, he predicts a tragic future for her, seeing her as unable to function outside of the sphere of male desire. Franzen spells a similar fate for Pip in Purity, placing us, as readers, in Boyne’s position of offstage voyeurism: from it, we see Pip naively pinning her hopes for the future on a man who has previously both rejected and insulted her, even as she ruminates on the possibility of ending up like her parents, who can be heard arguing in the background. In both instances, Wharton and Franzen force an awareness of tragedy. We are made to understand that we are seeing Judith and Pip as young and desirable for the last time, and that their tragic fall from desirability is nigh.

The primary difference between the two novels, then, has to do with the questions the authors ask of their readers. Franzen rewrites Wharton’s Why do men want in this way? as a rumination on feminine promiscuity, and as a condemnation of female desire. Why do bitches be crazy? Franzen asks instead, as though female desire is a centuries-deep mystery that the digital age has only succeeded in making more complex and inscrutable. But instead of supplying answers to this question, Franzen leaves the crazy bitch scenario to loop endlessly on repeat, for our supposed readerly enjoyment. Instead of uncomfortable conversations, Franzen gives us sex scenes, and plenty of them.

So don’t be fooled by the title: Purity is not the protagonist in Purity, nor is any other female character. It is male desire that takes center stage in this novel — unquestioned, uncomplicated, and unceasing. And whereas Wharton saw male desire for the immature female body as a conundrum to be parodied and, perhaps, prophylactically assessed in The Children, Franzen sees it as an event to be replicated and replayed to the point of pathology and banality alike. I said before that The Children might be Purity’s cousin or sister: indeed, the familial resemblance between these two texts is strong, especially when we consider that Wharton was the leading realist writer of her day and Franzen is the most popular realist writer of ours. But Franzen’s novel doesn’t simply rewrite Wharton’s narrative — it corrupts it. The result is that Purity ends up looking less like a sibling or a cousin to Wharton’s The Children, and more like a pervy uncle.


Sheila Liming is an assistant professor in the English department at the University of North Dakota. She is currently writing a book on Edith Wharton, bibliomania, and early 20th-century cultures of collecting.